Two safari guides and a pair of foreigners out to save the world. What could go wrong?
Quite a lot…
Author Julia Ember takes the reader on a fantastic journey in an alternate universe in Unicorn Tracks. Sixteen year-old Mnemba is a tour guide and tracker at her cousin’s safari camp in Nazwimbe. There she leads her customers – who are coming from Echalend up north – into the wild and shows them mystical creatures like griffins, mandrakes, and chimeras.
When Mr. Harving and his daughter Kara come to the camp in order to follow up on their research about unicorns, it’s the beginning of an adventure and also of first love.
On their search for the hard-to-find unicorns, the girls stumble across an awful secret. Who is capturing the unicorns and to what purpose? Can Mnemba and Kara help them escape and safe the country from war and slavery?
Julia Ember creates a world with a very unique setting. The combination of fantasy elements and what feels to the reader like African safari is very interesting.
The story is told from Mmenba’s point of view and her narration is easy-going and straightforward. Her character has several layers to it – I liked her best as a confident tracker – but I wished for the layers to feel more like they made a cohesive whole. Instead they can be viewed as single parts that are supposed to build her character. In addition to being a tracker, she is a girl falling in love with another girl for the first time, a girl who was attacked and raped in her father’s village a year ago, and a reckless teenager who, quite frankly, is too stupid to live, judging by the decisions she makes, especially during the second half of the book.
Her love interest – Kara – is a confident girl who sees the safari as her one chance of freedom and adventure, since she was promised to another man at her birth, as is customary in Echalend, and is to marry him when she is eighteen. To be honest, while I liked both of the girls well enough, I don’t quite see what they saw in each other and why, two weeks after meeting, they are in love and even making life altering decisions based on it.
The plot revolving around the rescue of the unicorns is the weakest part of the book.
What had seemed like a decent plan before now seemed reckless.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like reading about stupid and even far-fetched plot developments. Not only do the girls just walk into danger several times, even the adults join them at one point and don’t stop them at another.
Additionally, I think that the book is gratuitously cruel and gruesome, bordering on the ridiculous. The above mentioned rape and assault feels disconnected from the plot and not only does it not add anything significant to Mmemba’s character, I didn’t see how or why or even if she overcame her trauma. The unicorns and slaves in the story are brutalised and the living conditions are awful. The villain is two-dimensional and, um, has blades instead of some teeth, and is basically all evil. I didn’t like that, mainly because it just didn’t fit and had no purpose other than to make the story cruel, which may be a good enough reason for some, but isn’t for me.
While the annoying plot development and the unnecessarily gory parts of the book can’t be outweighed by the interesting setting and the nice characters, Unicorn Tracks is not a bad book. Others might not be as bothered by my negative points as I was.